I started playing “League of Legends” because it was a good way to approach gamers who didn’t talk much. I picked it up in high school in 2015, but didn’t really start getting good at it until college. The game has so many barriers to entry. Veteran players aren’t the most supportive of beginners, and they can be quite toxic. It’s a running joke in the community that “League” players also don’t know why they’re still playing this game.
That hasn’t stopped me from trying to introduce “League” and its esports scene to my friends. I tried again Sunday evening, at the League of Legends World Championship in New York City — with mixed results.
For the uninitiated: “League” is a video game about strategically collecting gold and items, outmaneuvering the opponent and taking down objectives until one team successfully destroys the other’s base. Watching the game’s esports is almost a requirement if you want to be a good player, and I’ve followed the esports scene for as long as I’ve played the game. Many players will tell you that “League of Legends” esports is about seeing professional gamers compete at the highest level, demonstrating how the game should look.
Watching “League of Legends” live for the first time in person, after years of following along while the tournament was held in Paris or Chinese cities, was a wild experience. I brought a friend with me, one who only casually plays “League.” Sitting down in Hulu Theater at New York’s Madison Square Garden this past weekend, I immediately felt a rush from seeing thousands in the crowd screaming, booing and cheering over things as small as an enemy stealing a red buff with smite, or a few players trying to return to base but getting stopped by an enemy spell. At first, it was blood-pumping. Feeling the crowd’s nail-biting trepidation only added to a broader sense of communal joy. The most mundane things in “League” were being blown up on screens that dwarfed any home TV setup.
I was especially excited to see what would happen following Saturday’s matchups, during which Damwon’s midlaner Heo “ShowMaker” Su made fans scream and cry when his clean gameplay helped his team pick up two kills after playing from behind. I had friends who shelled out $150 per ticket to scalpers so they could watch Gen.G and Damwon, which fans have described as one of the best matches in all of Worlds.
But things on Sunday, the last day of Worlds in New York, were decidedly less interesting. Unlike watching highlights online, I couldn’t skip ahead to the good parts. I had to watch players farm carefully, walk and check out bushes on the map, ward them for vision, rinse and repeat. Teams racked up total dragons and Barons killed while keeping the bloodshed at a minimum.
This early game setup, when you’re playing the game or watching aggressive players, can be fun. Sunday night, though, in the battle between DRX (a South Korean team previously known as Dragon X) and EDG (Edward Gaming, last year’s Chinese winners of Worlds), there were some games where both teams got scared and started turtling. The audience waited patiently as teams of five avoided unnecessary risks and fights, and slowly built their way toward endgame battles.
Teams will fight again next weekend in Atlanta, Georgia and again for finals in San Francisco on November 5. They’ll try to win a Tiffany and Co.-sponsored World Cup, and arrive onstage after a Lil Nas X performance. Each Baron they kill will be followed by a Red Bull ad, and Mercedes-Benz has also stayed the course as a loyal advertiser. “League of Legends” is massive, and it’s trying to be the Super Bowl of esports.
But the spectacle I expected was offset by cautious play. Sunday’s games highlighted a known issue within “League” esports. Pro players on the international scene are motivated to play as safely as possible so that they can guarantee a victory in what is an incredibly volatile field: the winner changes nearly every year. They are less motivated to rush in, risking potential death, as any misplays could change the outcome of the game.
Sunday’s match had one incredible moment, prompting the audience to stand up and scream. In game two, DRX secretly crept into the enemy base, was one second from ending the game, and then an inhibitor automatically respawned, preventing the victory, giving EDG enough time to turn things around. And yet, explaining this moment to my friend over the screams of the crowd was difficult, especially given the fact that you need some inside knowledge of “League” to understand why it stood out against Sunday’s largely disappointing slate of games.
“League” now has over 140 champions, each with their own unique set of skills and different synergies. I attempted to explain to my friend in game three on Sunday why Edward Gaming picking the new champion Renata, plus an older character, Kalista, was a riveting combo. It simply sounded inscrutable. On the smaller monitors across Hulu Theater, further back from the stage, the font for players’ names and statistics became practically illegible. The casters, who speak quickly over the matches, used loads of game terminology that a casual fan would have trouble understanding. Netflix’s “League of Legends” show Arcane may have enticed people to try out the game, but I can’t imagine how those new players may have fared watching Worlds.
If you do choose to invest time and energy into learning “League,” it becomes incredibly enjoyable and worthwhile. Talking to “League” gamers over the past few weeks in New York at various events and speaking this almost other-language (“hey I should hop into those strangers’ game right now with my 0/10 Yasuo jungle and build AP, then ask, why are we losing the game?”) to a bunch of like-minded nerds is truly a bonding experience. But my non-“League” friends who attended these events with me simply milled about, talking about Halloween plans and video games that they did care about. They still enjoyed their time out at a live event, but we had little to talk about in terms of the event itself — and how the games played out didn’t make it any easier.
After EDG overwhelmed DRX in the first game for an easy win for China, the two teams cautiously walked around each other in games three and four. One game lasted a drawn-out thirty minutes where almost nothing of note happened. DRX picked up towers and objectives without even engaging EDG in fights. These were games of careful planning, strategic positioning, and crucially, very few skirmishes or battles. In other words, time for viewers to dip.
This isn’t helped by the historical predictability of the sport. The final matchups are all Korean and Chinese teams, as they have been for the most part every year. The U.S. has never won a “League of Legends” championship, despite parent company Riot Games being based in Los Angeles. (Riot was acquired by Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent in 2015). European teams have secured just one title, though they consistently make it to the semifinals or better.
Just by looking at the schedule and what regions teams are from, you can usually deduce who will make it to the finals. That takes a lot of the drama away from the games.
It can also be harder for Western onlookers to connect with Asian teams compared to American teams, due to time zones, language barriers and the use of different social media platforms. (This is a known problem. “League” has tried to boost the profiles of its Asian teams globally with dramatic trailers and even anime sequences.) And some of the North American players I’ve followed since the beginning, like Yiliang “Doublelift” Peng, have retired from the scene and shifted focus to content creation. The roster changes and team swaps in “League” can also mean that if you only tune into Worlds every year and don’t watch regional playoffs, the teams and players with the highest chances of winning may look unfamiliar.
When I realized on Sunday that game three would mostly be downtime, I left the stadium to grab dinner with my friend. We had a nice meal in Koreatown, then I checked the stream and timed our return to Hulu Theater to when the final, fifth game was underway, persuading my friend that the return would be worth it.
As I arrived to my seat again, fans’ eyes were glued to the stage. The score was finally two to two, and it was anyone’s game. The screen was dramatic teamfight after teamfight, with DRX’s midlaner, Zeka, pulverizing the other team through sheer power. Korea won, beating back last year’s Worlds winners. For a moment, the outside world wasn’t real, and this was all that mattered. Everyone yelled so loudly, in English, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and more. People lingered in their seats, standing up to see the winners and losers bow onstage. This was Worlds, at maximum charm.
“I was pretty tired by that point, but it definitely woke me up,” my friend recalled.